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Politics & Government

Oregon lawmakers say goodbye to Senate President Peter Courtney and slog toward a finish

Democratic Oregon Senate President Peter Courtney watches as senators offer their support for a resolution supporting those who fought and died in the Modoc War in the Senate chambers at the Oregon Capitol in Salem, Ore., Tuesday, April 2, 2019.
Bryan M. Vance
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Democratic Oregon Senate President Peter Courtney watches as senators offer their support for a resolution supporting those who fought and died in the Modoc War in the Senate chambers at the Oregon Capitol in Salem, Ore., Tuesday, April 2, 2019.

Oregon Senate President Peter Courtney made what may be his final speech in support of a bill on Wednesday, asking for support on one of his favorite topics: protecting animals.

The 40-year lawmaker, the longest-serving legislator in state history, is not seeking reelection this year. On Wednesday, he rallied votes for his bill banning greyhound racing in Oregon, a plan that went on to pass with wide support.

But the moment also provided an opportunity for colleagues to honor Courtney’s legacy as both a statesman and a giant character in Oregon politics.

“It’s fitting that this bill, which is probably the final bill that Peter Courtney will carry on policy during his career, is on animals,” said Sen. Lee Beyer, D-Springfield.

Courtney has sponsored laws to ban cockfighting and puppy mills, protect free-range chickens, prevent dogs from dying in hot cars, increase penalties for animal abuse and create licensing programs for rescue shelters.

While the championing of animal rights earned him admiration, it’s the fast-talking, insult-slinging, larger-than-life personality that many of his colleagues said they will miss.

Sen. Sarah Gelser Blouin, D-Corvallis, recounted how before the pandemic, when the Capitol buzzed each day with hundreds of spectators, lobbyists and staff, Courtney commanded attention. Everyone would stop what they were doing, she said, when Courtney spoke.

“I think we often don’t get a chance to celebrate (Courtney) for the good character that he brings to his work, that compassion and that care,” Gelser said.

Even Republicans — who didn’t always support Courtney’s legislative agenda — admitted their respect for Courtney’s leadership.

“He has been a legend,” said Sen. Fred Girod, R-Lyons. “And the state’s a heck of a lot better because Peter Courtney has been here.”

As the celebration of Courtney’s final days suggested, lawmakers are barreling toward the end of their 35-day 2022 session

They must adjourn on March 7. Here are some significant proposals lawmakers have taken up this week :

Adopting rules for the private forest accord: Senators approved a bill Wednesday that sets up the rulemaking for the historic agreement brokered by Gov. Kate Brown between two parties in Oregon — timber interests and environmentalists — that have fought for decades.

The plan directs the Oregon Board of Forestry to adopt rules no later than Nov. 30 covering the regulation of timber harvests on 10 million acres of private land, updating the state’s habitat conservation plan, protection of streams and support for small forest owners. The agreement would give more certainty to loggers whose operations have been significantly hampered since the early 1990s by environmental regulations, while also providing clear guidelines to protect forests and watersheds. The bill now heads to the House for final approval.

Heat relief for vulnerable Oregonians: Not long ago, many Oregonians balked at the idea they might need air conditioning.

“Unfortunately, because of the effects of climate changes, those days are over,” Deb Patterson, D- Salem, said on the Senate floor on Wednesday.

Nearly 100 people died from heat-related illnesses during a heat wave last June. Many were older adults who were found alone in their homes; the majority of homes lacked air conditioning. Senate Bill 1536 designates $34.5 million to help state agencies provide warming, cooling or clean air shelters; it would also remove barriers from renters who want to install portable air conditioning units in their apartments. Senators approved it 23-4, and it now goes to the House.

Supporting Oregon’s nursing workforce: The Senate is poised to give final approval to a bill that would allow the state to issue nursing licenses to students interning in hospitals so they can practice under the supervision of a certified nurse.

House Bill 4003 also gives nurses access to a program that provides mental health and wellness support for people in an industry experiencing a high rate of burnout two years into a pandemic. Proponents say the plan will help tackle a shortage of nurses in Oregon’s workforce while also providing support that helps keep people in the field.

Addressing the childcare shortage: The pandemic has made even more obvious Oregon’s child care shortage. House Bill 4005 would address that problem by increasing the amount of money child care providers who accept Employment Related Day Care (ERDC) subsidies receive. It’s part of a larger child care package aimed at recruiting and retaining more workers. Senators gave final approval to HB 4005 Wednesday.

Heightened penalties for harassing an election worker: Lawmakers scaled back House Bill 4144, which as introduced would have made it a felony to harass an election worker in connection with their job. Now, the bill would instead make such harassment a class A misdemeanor, punishable by up to a year in jail.

The bill was proposed by Secretary of State Shemia Fagan, who says election workers in the state have increasingly become the target of threats since former President Donald Trump’s lie that the 2020 election was stolen. Beyond new penalties, HB 4144 would also exempt the addresses of election workers from being released as part of voter registration records, if an official requests that their information remain private. The House was scheduled to vote on the bill Tuesday afternoon. If passed it would head to Gov. Kate Brown.

Payments to people who were wrongfully imprisoned. Oregon is currently one of 13 states that don’t offer payments to assist people who’ve been imprisoned for crimes they didn’t commit.

That would change with Senate Bill 1584, which passed out of the Senate on Tuesday without any opposition. The bill would provide $65,000 a year for each year a person was imprisoned for a crime they can prove they did not commit. It would also pay them $25,000 for each year they were on probation or parole, or required to register as a sex offender. Advocates of the bill estimate it might apply to 13 people who’ve been wrongfully imprisoned in Oregon, totaling roughly $5 million in payments. SB 1584 next heads to the House.

Grants to boost pay for behavioral health workers: House Bill 4004 is an attempt to staunch a loss of behavioral health workers and services in Oregon by offering $132 million in grants to help organizations increase employee pay, offer retention bonuses and hire new staff.

According to the Oregon Health Authority, the state has lost nearly 400 treatment beds in recent years for issues such as mental illness and addiction. HB 4004 is part of a larger package aimed at addressing Oregon’s major shortcomings in behavioral health. It passed unanimously and now heads to the Senate.

Stepped-up penalties for assaulting a hospital worker. House Bill 4142 would make it a class C felony, punishable by up to 5 years in prison, to knowingly assault a hospital worker.

The bill has widespread support from members of Oregon’s medical community but is opposed by some who believe it could lead to more serious consequences for mentally ill patients. Members of the House approved it 53-7 on Tuesday. Next up is a Senate vote.

Hardening the state’s critical energy infrastructure: Seismic studies suggest the field of oil and liquid fuel terminals along the Willamette River in northwest Portland poses a serious safety and environmental hazard in the event of a large earthquake.

Senate Bill 1567 directs operators of these terminals in Columbia, Multnomah and Lane counties to conduct vulnerability assessments and implement seismic risk mitigation plans to the Department of Environmental Quality. The bill, approved Tuesday, also directs the state’s energy department to develop a security plan and report back to the legislature later this year.

Establishing the Elliott State Research Forest: Lawmakers also approved Senate Bill 1546 Tuesday; it establishes Elliott State Forest, 91,000 acres straddling Douglas and Coos counties, as a research laboratory for the study of forest management practices and habitat conservation.

The move creates a new government authority to oversee operations and directs the state to contract with Oregon State University to manage it. It ends a nearly eight-year-long debate over the forest’s future..

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